Entrepreneur: Maniti Modi
Business Name: ConnectFor
Welcome to Entrepreneurs of India #startupstories episode 56
It all begins with an idea- one that does not let you sleep until it is fulfilled. Time and again we have heard entrepreneurs gleefully sharing their tale of the idea they brought to life. We have one more story to tell. ConnectFor’s founders are an addition to the growing breed of social entrepreneurs.
With young India showing more interest in committing their time for social causes ConnectFor provides the ultimate platform bridging the gap between committed volunteers and influential NGOs.
Well, you can expect nothing less than the best from someone who resorts to yoga and kickboxing for relaxation; after all, a person well versed in meditation and kick-ass action can create nothing less than an adventure!
ConnectFor became the opportunity for the many who wanted to use their time to be of service. Through this idea they were solving a problem that NGOs and potential volunteers have been battling for ages.
Maniti Modi has won the hearts of her volunteers and her stakeholders alike by converting social commitment to action and creating a platform for the same. Starting in 2015, ConnectFor is now spread over 4 cities and seven localities. Let us hear from the founder herself about the incredible tale of bringing an idea to life.
1) How did you get your idea for this business?
ConnectFor began with a simple idea – to make volunteering easy, fun, convenient, structured and most importantly win-win for a cause. We noticed NGOs were not being able to effectively communicate their volunteering requirements due to lack of time, resources and the right platforms/tools, while volunteers were not being able to find the right volunteering engagement to create impact and make a difference.
Taking inspiration from an international organization, we decided to bring the concept to India. What started with a simple concept of bridging the gap between volunteers and NGOs has now become a full-fledged servicing platform where we cater to all our stakeholders – NGOs, volunteers, corporates – organizing community initiatives, corporate engagements, etc.
2) Why is “now” a good time for this idea to exist?
India’s attitude towards volunteering has been decidedly paradoxical. While some schools and colleges have mandatory service requirements, and corporates are actively organizing one off volunteering engagements for their employees, the culture of volunteerism has never fully developed.
We believe it is essential to inculcate the spirit of volunteerism in the youth, to make them realize the value of human capital, going beyond the idea of simply just donating money. We also believe that volunteering is the people’s first exposure to the social sector hence it is very important that people have the right experience as it can lead to people becoming socially active individuals/ philanthropists at a young age.
There are a lot of NGOs doing great work at the grass root level but in order to ensure that there is consolidation and structure in the space organisations like ConnectFor which act as aggregators are required.
3) What was the reaction from your family when you first decided to become an entrepreneur?
I’m grateful to be surrounded by hard working and motivated individuals within my family. I worked with a consultancy agency prior to starting up ConnectFor and neither my family members nor I expected to set out on this route in the development sector.
They were curious and ecstatic at the same time before I became an entrepreneur, and with the initial success of ConnectFor, they were overwhelmed joy and happiness.
I think most of my friends were slightly shocked at first because it had nothing to do with what I studied but then as they saw ConnectFor growing, and once they realised the efforts that went into building it, they were/are very supportive and encouraging about ConnectFor.
4) What was your biggest mistake in business and what did you learn from it?
I think our biggest mistake was that initially we were too conservative in our approach. Whether it was decisions about scale & growth, or about making marketing spend or anticipating what our reach could be we were not aggressive enough.
I think that’s why initially we may not have capitalized on certain opportunities that came our way but what we learnt from this is that we should seize whatever opportunity that comes our way and if we fail then at least we would have learnt something from it!
5) What is your biggest obstacle in the next 12 months and how will you overcome it?
As we are on the brink of geographical scalability and growth we want to ensure that we don’t spread ourselves too thin and we still create as much value in the work we do while catering to larger volumes.
One way we intend to manage the new opportunities coming our way is to ensure that we are building a strong team of capable leaders who believe in our vision and goals and can execute the way would.
6) What habits contribute to your success?
First and foremost, I start my day early. I give myself an hour in the morning just to think about all that I want to achieve in the day and 30 minutes in the evening reflecting on the events of the day.
It’s so important to continuously set goals and new goals, and reflect on them. It helps the organization to understand the rate at which it’s growing and the limitations they’re facing early on, with this constant reflection.
I think both my co founder and I are very open to feedback (positive and negative). We take quick decisions and do not fear trying out new things. If they fail, we take it as a learning, and move on to the next thing.
This is the basis on which ConnectFor has been built. I also like to believe that I am somewhat of a perfectionist and give 100% to what I do — even today I still look into every pitch or deliverable that goes out to a client!
What essentially leads to success is teamwork. With the hard-working individuals contributing to our success at ConnectFor it’s essential to keep them motivated through praising all their efforts and skipping the blame game altogether.
7) If you had the opportunity to start this business again what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t have our journey altered any other way. We’ve had our own setbacks, stagnant periods, victories, and we’ve learnt a lot the hard way. No doubt we would want to triumph forward, but without the setbacks we would have missed out on a lot of the insight, advice and constructive feedback we were showered with.
8) What is your favourite inspirational quote?
“You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety” – Abraham Maslow.
From day 1 of ConnectFor, we have taken risks, only to either succeed or to learn. We’ve only seen the team and the organization grow since we started out and realized early on that it’s better to step forward and grow regardless of the number of setbacks than retreat and play it safe.
9) Where do you find inspiration?
For me, to take my mind off work related thoughts, I spend after work hours either doing Yoga or Kickboxing. I’ve noticed that a certain number of hours devoted to physical exercise keeps me focused on my goals, more motivated and alert throughout the week.
I’ve also learnt to question every situation and idea that comes my way, without letting it slip by. Regardless of whether the idea is good or bad, I ensure to try and test it out and it may succeed or fail completely. I believe it’s important to make mistakes to keep progressing.
10) What is your favourite book?
I would have to admit that I am not much of a reader but before we started ConnectFor both my co-founder and I read “The Lean Start Up” and it was an interesting read. From how to create a product/service/ viable business from an idea, this book hits the right notes.
It has helped us apply principles like building MVPs (minimum viable products) and creating constant iterations to build the right kind of business model.
11) What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Take failure and criticism in your stride. Initially things won’t go the way you planned for it to or you may receive a lot of unwanted criticism. Learn to adapt and find another route to get to your goal.
You’ll have to put twice the amount of effort and hard work to prove yourself, but don’t give up on your goal completely. The gratification of achieving your goals once you do reach there will put you on cloud nine.
12) What do you think are challenges faced by NGOs today?
Presently in India, there are over 3.3 million NGOs, most of which are doing great work in their various niche areas. There are NGOs spanning causes from education to advocacy, research to conservation. 90% NGOs report satisfaction with their impact.
Despite this, it is believed that less than 100 NGOs receive the lion’s share of donor funding, especially in causes like food and clothing provision, which received 78% of donors’ attention.
As a result many NGOs in India are underfunded, and therefore under-resourced. It traps many NGOs especially smaller ones, in a vicious cycle of having to choose between spending their limited resource on becoming attractive to potential donors, or their programmes on the ground. There is a large problem with donor visibility that threatens to widen this gap as investment into the space grows.
NGOs have to find a way to balance both in order to be sustainable – we believe that pro-bono human resource, especially skilled resource, is a very viable solution to this challenge if utilized correctly.
13) How do you look at the CSR activities today?
Since the CSR law was implemented in 2013 corporates have become more socially aware. Initially organisations were simply cutting a cheque and donating it to NGOs but now most of the larger organisations and even some mid sized companies are looking at aligning business values with their CSR policies.
Slowly but steadily CSR activities are evolving to tackle problems that NGOs face more wholistically rather than only through funding.
Corporates are looking at employee engagement and volunteering as a key component of their CSR activities. Corporates have become a key stakeholder in the social sector since the CSR law came about.
Nobody says it was easy. But, they all agree that given a chance they would do it again. Entrepreneurs feel most alive bringing their ideas to life and nurturing them to prosperity. This is what keeps them going amidst the chaos of every day life.
ConnectFor has had a huge impact across the country with many cities requesting them to come over. Expansion is certainly a challenge for every business but businesses thrive in the face of adversities. Like the great Mahatma said, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.”